Interview with Laura Loge
Recently, Laura sat down with our music director Julia Tai to discuss her background, Norwegian music, and the composers featured in our concert on Saturday, Nov. 13 (get tickets):
Julia Tai (JT): What is your background? How does your heritage inspire your interest and work in presenting Norwegian composers’ music?
Laura Loge (LL): I was actually born in Seattle and grew up in Montana. On my father’s side all my ancestors came from southwestern Norway, between Bergen and Stavanger, just south and inland of Stavanger, and a tiny island on the edge of the fjords with about an acre of farmable land. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting each of the places they came from and getting to know relatives who still live there. My name, Loge, comes from a farm on a hill south of Stavanger where vikings used to meet to play games or fight to solve conflicts, once called Leikvin, and now called Løge. I learned Norwegian beginning with Norwegian camp as kid and studied Norwegian and Music at St. Olaf College, as well as in Norway at the University of Oslo International Summer School, and at the University of Stavanger Conservatory of Music. Each step of the way I expanded my knowledge and understanding of Norwegian languages, culture, history, and music. In college most vocal performance majors study the main opera languages: Italian, German, French, and English. Of course I studied those, but have never been one to follow other people’s paths, and have always had the desire to bring unheard music to the ears of people around me. For me, that is Norwegian music, Grieg and beyond. I still spend more time than I should searching for more Norwegian songs by composers I hadn’t previously known in the hopes that I’ll get a chance to share it with audiences here. I’m lucky to have an amazing pianist and composer colleague, Steven Luksan, who is as obsessed with this repertoire as I am. We share what we find with each other and explore deeper into the repertoire together. He’s my enabler, of sorts. Within the Nordic realm, I’m not limited to Norway, but it is from the Norwegian perspective that I approach other Nordic music. They are all connected by language and culture (Finns are a bit out there, though) so I have little difficulty branching out to the rest of the Nordic musical world.
JT: Can you tell us what is so special about Norwegian music?
LL: Every culture’s music is intertwined with their nature and language, and Norway is no different. Norway’s landscape is so dramatic, rough, and overwhelmingly beautiful. The music and languages (there are two official languages, bokmål and nynorsk, and innumerable dialects) are liltingly musical with beautiful, gentle sounds that create many onomatopoetic moments, and with an odd melancholy that reflects the darkness of the North in the winter and the loneliness created by historical distances over the rough landscapes of a generally stoic people, never eager to over express their feelings. And yet, they often possess an undeniable sprightliness as they explores the mystical and mythical world of trolls, nisser, witches, and other mysterious beings from the great-beyond and how they create mischief and manipulate humans who wander too far from the path, figuratively and literally. All this comes together into an undeniably unique Norwegian sound, easily distinguished from the other Nordic countries as well as other western classical music.
JT: I know you’ve also been presenting women composers’ music. Can you tell us about Agathe Backer-Grondahl, whose Scherzo for Orchestra is also in this concert?
LL: Agathe Backer-Grøndahl is a wonderful composer who I consider the Clara Schumann of Norway. A contemporary and dear friend of Edvard and Nina Grieg, she was one of the most prominent pianists of her era and composed hundreds of songs and piano pieces. Her style really evokes the beauty and nuance of Norwegian nature with many songs and piano miniatures about insects and flowers. I’ve sung a number of her songs and am always charmed by the flowery, romantic music. She also has a handful of chamber works and several larger works for orchestra. Amazingly, scores of most of her music is available on IMSLP for free to explore and I encourage pianists and singers, especially, to look into her gorgeous music. There are a few excellent recordings of some of her songs and many of her piano music, but most of them have not been recorded yet. I’m so excited to hear her Scherzo for Orchestra on Saturday. As are no recordings of it, it will truly be a unique opportunity to hear something new!
JT: Tell us about Monrad Johansen. How did you discover his music?
LL: David Monrad Johansen was one of the first Nordic Impressionists (although Grieg was creating impressionistic sounds before impressionism was a thing) and began incorporating expressionism into his sound often utilizing modal scales, yet never lost sight of his roots in Norwegian folk music. Like most Norwegian composers of his era he had to travel to Germany to further his musical education as a young man, in his case, Berlin. While on mainland Europe he visited France and encountered the music of Stravinsky, Ravel, and Debussy, whose music left a huge impression on him and his own compositions. He also explored expressionism and neo-classisism through his career.
As a performer and producer (I’m also artistic director of the Mostly Nordic Chamber Music Series at the National Nordic Museum and President and Founder of the Northwest Edvard Grieg Society) I am always exploring music that is new to me, brainstorming new programs and concerts for the future. Initially I had encountered Monrad Johansen’s music decades ago when I was studying Nordic art song at St. Olaf and in Stavanger and was glad to find an outlet to get to perform these songs a few years ago here in the Pacific Northwest.
JT: Can you tell us more about the poems used in his Seven Songs? These Norwegian folk verses are so colorful! It really paints a beautiful picture of the Norwegian landscape, and sometimes very strange stories too. Are there some things behind these poetry you can tell us?
LL: The texts from these songs come from a compilation of over 800 ballads and folk texts from the Norwegian middle-ages, Norske folkeviser, (Norwegian folk-verses) collected by Magnus Brostrup Landstad and published in about 1852. Grieg’s Den Bergtekne (The Mountain Thrall) comes from the same work. The language is actually a very old Norwegian – neither bokmål nor nynorsk – passed down through generations for hundreds of years before Landstad collected them. As with all folk songs, stories expressed in the verses depict life in a very specific place and at a very specific time, often as a warning to younger generations to behave themselves or face dire consequences. These seven texts almost produce a visceral experience when combined with Monrad Johansen’s music. The poems evoke mysterious talking birds, a long-lost love peacefully protected in a distant cloister, a pastoral scene complete with a tromping sheep and another with the rising sun to wake the valley’s residents, frigid, snow-enveloped roads, a bizarre interaction between a fox and a farmer, neither of whom gets what they want, and finally stunningly detailed descriptions of the beauty of Norway’s landscapes and the people who reside there. Monrad Johansen brings to life the dissonances produced by the warning bird, the crunching footsteps through the snow, and the conflict between the fox and the farmer, yet his brilliant harmonies and gorgeous melodies representing the pastoral beauty are just as present and effective. All of this is combined with the the old Norwegian language transports the musicians and audience to another place and another time.
JT: The piece was originally written for voice and piano, and our good friend, Adam Stern, arranged these beautiful songs for voice and 11 instruments. Can you tell us more about your collaboration with Adam, and whether you had any input in how these songs are arranged?
LL: David Monrad Johansen is the father of Johan Kvandal whose Norske stevtoner I had programmed and sang for a Mostly Nordic concert alongside my Norwegian pianist colleague Knut Erik Jensen. Also on the program was a piano concerto by Klaus Egge, performed by Knut Erik. Adam Stern was conducting the chamber orchestra for the concerto and he offered to arrange a few songs for the chamber orchestra for me to sing. I couldn’t pass up that amazing opportunity! The connection between Kvandal and Monrad Johansen was the ideal program addition and I was familiar with this set so I selected three of the seven songs for that concert. I essentially gave him free reign in his choice of orchestration, helping by giving him translations and sharing some favorite recordings, and providing some interpretation of the texts, but the inspiration for his orchestration is all his own. He has managed to add more amazing colors to Monrad Johansen’s songs than the piano alone could create. I’m especially amazed by how he was able to heighten the experience of trudging through the snow and the pastoral feel of the song about the shepherd utilizing percussion and winds respectively. Each song feels even more realistic and transports us to that distant time and place through his orchestrations. I’m so grateful he took an interest in this project and I know our audience on Saturday will too!